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April 26 marked the opening of Chris Marker: Memory of a Certain Time, an exhibition of the legendary French filmmaker’s photographs. To accompany the exhibition, TIFF Bell Lightbox is throwing Remembrance of Things to Come, a mini retrospective of Marker’s films, which includes classics such as La Jetée and Sans Soleil . Cinephiles, Francophiles, prepare to flock!

If you ever take (or have taken) a survey course on the French New Wave, you’ll spend a minute with Chris Marker. Well, probably 28 minutes, to be precise. In the tumultuous burst of expression that is post-war French film, Chris Marker gets a strange little rock along the line of milestones. Between obelisks of films like A Bout de Souffle (Breathless) and 400 Coups (400 Blows) Marker’s little boulder, La Jetée , sits; smaller in stature, yet immovable. There to stay.

La Jetée  is unique. I’ve never seen another film like it. How it goes: a post-nuclear-war civilization lives underground, sends its prisoners backwards and forwards in time to change fate for the better. An everyman, our protagonist, is chosen to be a time travel guinea pig because he has a vivid, single pre-war memory: seeing a woman’s beautiful face while watching planes take off at the Orly airport. During several unreal journeys to the past, he finds himself walking through parks and museums with the woman he remembers. But our protagonist soon finds out that it’s the future which is his destiny.

Complete with love interest and a masterful use of structural irony,  La Jetée does in 28 minutes what ensuing sci-fi films need two hours for, not to mention millions of dollars. Most singularly,  La Jetée has no moving images: photo after photo create a living storyboard. While this sounds one step more primitive than a proper movie, I get the feeling that  La Jetée is in some way a critique of lazy, glutted filmmaking. As such a complete, complex piece of work, Marker’s film seems to say that actual movement is gratuitous: montage is what makes a film. Plus, these images are brought to life by excellent sound design. As our protagonist, forced to go back in time, is being scrutinized by scientists, arcane german-sounding whispers creep through the harsh black and white images. A melancholy narrator’s voice all but betrays that he knows the end of this story. Heartbeats pound throughout.

A scene from La Jetée.

A scene from La Jetée, screening at TIFF Bell Lightbox on Friday, May 17, 2013.

  La Jetée would be Marker’s calling card. I saw it years ago and then forgot about him, assumed without thought that he only made one great work. Then, a few days ago, I saw Sans Soleil , Marker’s essay film about a cameraman’s impressions of Japan and Guinea-Bissau in the 1980s. Essay film: neither documentary nor fiction, more of a semi-narrative film poem. Images move from Tokyo department stores to a shrine for cats while the narrator, a woman, reads letters from the cameraman. His observations, his feelings, what he understands, what mystifies him. Like La JetéeSans Soleil comprises a montage of (moving) images and a voice-over. Yet, apart from a shared feeling of profundity (if that means anything), the two films really differ in style. Where  La Jetée is a major idea distilled into just the suggestion of a whole world,  Sans Soleil takes its 100 minutes carefully and dwells on the details of its subject matter.  Sans Soleil begins from these details: how Guinean woman avoid the camera like it’s an evil eye, how the Japanese burn their broken dolls in a ceremony. And from such specific observations, it builds a poetic hybrid of two totally different peoples. While there’s no deep reason that Japan and Guinea-Bissau are being compared or dwelled upon as a pair, it doesn’t seem to matter. Marker’s eye looks upon any humanity with equal measure, finds the mystery and wonders aloud.

There’s something mature about Chris Marker’s work. While his films are often pretty singular, he has no gimmicks. No affectation – no acting, no action really – and yet he’s among the greatest. After La Jetée , what sci-fi can there be? Similarly,  Sans Soleil is so far beyond a mere travelogue: neither fiction, nor documentary, Sans Soleil takes truth to be poetic, where images exist as themselves and words are just interpretation.  La Jetée is a dream.  Sans Soleil is a witnessing.

Remembrance of Things to Come: Works by Chris Marker runs from May 16, 2013 to May 19, 2013 at TIFF Bell Lightbox. Screening times can be found here.